Official War History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919
Chapter Five — Walker's Ridge
Fortunately, the services of the versatile and adaptable Mounted Riflemen may be utilised either mounted or dismounted, as circumstances dictate, in any class of country. On the hills of Gallipoli trench warfare prevailed, and the Mounted men were ready for it. Their boldness, aggressiveness, initiative, and judgment of country—all parts of their cavalry training—inspired them with that confidence which ensures success. These qualities were speedily put to the test, for on the morning after their landing orders were received by the N.Z.M.R. Brigade to take over No. 4 Section—the W.M.R. to relieve the Nelson and Deal Battalions on the right. The W.M.R. were the first to move; they scaled the rugged face of Walker's Ridge in a blistering sun, carrying their arms and accoutrements, and the relief was completed by 3 p.m. Four troops of the Regiment occupied the firing line four were in support, and four in reserve. The A.M.R. followed in like manner towards the left-wing trenches and the C.M.R. relieved the other troops on the lower slopes of Walker s Ridge to the sea—thus completing the taking over of No. 4 Section. The C.M.R. position included the two detached posts, Nos. 1 and 2 outposts, where the W.M.R. were to be engaged later on.
Brig.-General Russell had established his headquarters on the highest point of Walker's Ridge, and for this reason the plateau on which the trenches lay, close by to the south, became known as Russell s Top."
The W.M.R. Headquarters were between Brigade Headquarters and the trenches, on the top of a steep hill face where the road from the beach reached the plateau.
The area occupied by the W.M.R. was small, and in close proximity to the Turkish lines, its right rear being close to the edge of a precipitous cliff, which bent round from Regimental Headquarters To the right front of it a deep ravine—Monash Gully—ran behind Pope's Post, cutting connection between the two, whilst further to the right another gully separated Pope's from Quinn's and Courtney's Posts. From Pope's the enemy line ran in a northerly direction in front of the "Chessboard", facing the W.M.R. and A.M.R. to the "Nek"—a narrow ridge of page 18great strategical value connecting the country held by the opposing forces and forming a salient from which the line continued past "Baby 700" in the direction of "Battleship Hill." The left of the A.M.R. line terminated slightly to the north-west of the Nek, where the ground fell away to a deep tangled gully commanded by outposts. A W.M.R. machine gun was also placed in position there.
The trenches were anything but clean, and flies swarmed everywhere. Enemy snipers were active, and in order to counteract them picked shots were posted in forward positions, and the Turks were compelled by these to take closer cover than formerly.
The Regiment proceeded to improve the trenches on which they continued to work night and day, and the men soon realised that one of the principal duties of a soldier is to dig, not only to deepen the fire trenches, but to excavate communication trenches and construct roads large enough to allow reinforcements and guns to pass quickly to strengthen any threatened point. In the small congested area of Russell's Top, where it was not possible to form a second line of defence, broad communication trenches were essential, and for some considerable time large digging parties were to be constantly employed in constructing them. The stench from many dead bodies in advanced stages of decomposition on "No Man's Land" rendered the work most disagreeable, but even under these circumstances the men had the happy knack of making themselves comfortable. They excavated "dug-outs" to live in, and others to provide overhead cover against the incessant fire. It was also necessary, where there was "dead ground" in front of the fire trench, to sap through it till a clear field of fire could be obtained.
There was a lamentable lack of artillery support, only one Indian Mountain Battery being with the Brigade; the low trajectory fire of the naval guns was practically useless against the Turkish trenches, from which they ricochetted and flew harmlessly overhead. Howitzers were required, but these were not available till some time later.
It was known that the Turks were in considerable strength opposite Russell's Top, and that they had made a resolve to drive the detested infidels into the sea. Their machine guns and rifles poured a continuous hail of bullets into our sandbagged parapets both night and day, whilst their guns, cleverly concealed, played havoc with our trenches. In consequence, all ranks stood to arms between the hours of 4 and 5 a.m. and 7 and 8 p.m. daily in readiness to meet attacks.page 19 page break page 21
A shortage of water was one of the disadvantages of Anzac for some time, only half a gallon being available for each man per day, this being drawn from barges which were filled at Malta and Alexandria. From the Anzac beach the water was carried by the men in kerosene tins up the steep tracks of the hill to the trenches. The rations which were brought from the beach on mules consisted of bully beef, biscuits, cheese, jam, and tea, good for active service under ordinary circumstances, but the burning heat, nauseating smells, and a plague of flies discounted their value at Anzac. Meat was almost entirely discarded, owing to the thirst it caused, and cheese melted. Biscuits and jam with the ever-welcome tin of tea comprised the usual meal, and even these could not be relished, flies following them into the men's mouths. Shelter was possible from bullets and shrapnel, but not from these detested insects, which not only contaminated the food, but denied much-needed sleep in the day to men who had been on duty all night. Every effort was made to destroy them on our position—the trenches were kept scrupulously clean,—but "No Man's Land" was a breeding ground, and flies and smells remained with us during the whole of the summer. In spite of these discomforts, the men were ever cheerful, boiling their billies on home-made stoves—usually kerosene tins—or on a ledge cut into the side of a trench, four men cooperating, each doing his particular job, so that a meal was quickly prepared.
For some time the Squadron in reserve was kept busy widening the track leading up to Walker's Ridge, and making it suitable for the passage of field guns. One of the guns which were brought along the road—an obsolete six-inch howitzer—was found to be practically useless. It was fired from a position close to Regimental Headquarters, but it was so erratic, and its adjustment after each shot occupied so much time, that further perseverance with it was abandoned after a few shots had been attempted. These, however, drew the fire of enemy guns, and as a result many casualties occurred on the road close by.
It was not long before great improvements were observed in the Turkish defences, indicating that the enemy had fully appreciated the accuracy of the shooting of our men. New trenches With sand-bagged loop-holed parapets replaced the open trench, and secret sniping positions were pushed forward into the scrub, These were difficult to locate, but on the introduction of the periscopic rifle this difficulty was largely overcome. Two pieces of looking-glass were attached to the rifle, one above and one page 22below the trench, the upper reflecting the movements of the enemy into the lower, so that it was possible to shoot from below the trench. The top piece of glass was always a target for the Turks, and was quickly broken, but as the contrivance was manufactured on the spot repairs were soon effected.
About the middle of May it became known that the enemy had reinforced heavily and that he would probably attempt to carry out his threat "to drive the Anzac force into the sea." On the 17th his guns were very active and his aeroplanes flew over our position; but at the same time our troops were making preparations to meet him. Two guns of the N.Z. Field Artillery were hauled up Russell's Top and placed in position; the digging of a sap to connect Walker's Ridge and Pope's Post was hastened, and the supports were brought forward to sleep in the trenches.
The threatened attack commenced at midnight on the 18th with very heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, this continuing till about 3.30 a.m., when a great shouting of "Allah, Allah," was heard all along the enemy line from the front of Chatham's Post to the Nek. The Turks then charged, the main points of the attack being at Quinn's Post and against the left of the A.M.R. position opposite the Nek, throwing bombs, firing their rifles, and continuing to yell as they advanced. In the darkness their forms could not be seen distinctly, but the flashes from their rifles disclosed their positions from time to time, and the fire of our men momentarily checked the advance. But the Turks pressed the attack in great strength, line after line, forming an ideal target for machine gunners, who, with the A.M.R. holding the line, took full advantage of it, the Turks being mowed down in hundreds, making room for hundreds more, to be wiped out in their turn. It was during this phase in the fighting that the W.M.R. machine gun, commanding a splendid field of fire, wrought havoc in the ranks of the enemy. The A.M.R., who bore the brunt of the attack, defended with great determination, and when the Turks were finally driven back, soon after daylight, the ground in front of the trenches was strewn with enemy dead.
At Quinn's Post the attack also failed, with heavy loss. The mountain guns on the right of the Anzac position gave effective support by shelling the enemy communication trenches above the Nek. Sniping continued, and at 1.25 p.m. the Brigadier, acting on General Godley's instructions, ordered 100 officers and men of the W.M.R. to counter-attack two lines of trenches page 23at the Nek, the first trench being about 100 yards distant, the attack to commence at three o'clock. The orders particularised that the attacking party would take and clear the first trench, continue to the second, destroy any machine guns found, and return. It was considered by all occupants of our trenches that the order was an impossible one. The intervening ground was devoid of cover, and it could be raked by the enemy at will with transverse and direct fire from numerous well posted machine guns, the flying bullets of which would form a network, through which it would be impossible to penetrate for even a short distance. Moreover the Nek, along which the attack was to be made, was so narrow that the troops would have to mass as they crossed it, a movement which must have proved disastrous.
It is difficult to understand why such an order was ever issued, and the question arose as to what benefit could accrue from it, even if possible to carry it out. Heavy losses were inevitable, if not a total annihilation of the attacking party.
The attacking party comprised equal proportions of officers and other ranks from the three W.M.R. Squadrons, in order to obviate the possibility of the wiping out of any one Squadron. Captain W. J. Hardham, V.C., was given command, and the party moved into the position of deployment. The intensity of the rifle and machine-gun fire which swept across the intervening ground at that time was so great, however, that Brig. General Russell telephoned General Godley and informed him of the circumstances, with the result that the former was authorised to "use his own judgment." General Russell thereupon countermanded the order.
An indication of the strength of the enemy at the Nek was furnished some time later, on the morning of the 7th August when about 450 men of the 8th and 10th A.L.H. Regiments charged this position, and were practically annihilated.
The morning of the 20th commenced with the usual sniping, and at 6 a.m. an enemy gun concentrated shrapnel fire on Walker s Ridge, and inflicted a number of casualties there The usual sniping occurred, but at 4.30 p.m. it ceased, and numerous white flags appeared above the parapets of the enemy trenches, whereupon all firing ceased.
It was ascertained that the enemy desired an armistice to enable them to bury their dead, which were lying in hundreds along the trenches. Whilst these negotiations were taking place groups of Turks were observed in front of their trenches stripping their dead of rifles and ammunition. Simultaneously, reinforcemeats page 24were seen advancing to the front trenches and other parties were seen hurriedly digging on the hill above the Nek. The use of the white flag was, therefore, interpreted as a ruse to enable the enemy to concentrate large reserves in safety to the forward trenches and, also, to obtain arms and ammunition from the dead. Instructions were therefore given to the Turks that if their requirements were properly represented time and opportunity would be given them to bury the dead. The enemy were then given two minutes to return to their trenches, and at the expiry of that time hostilities were resumed, our mountain guns being used with great effect in pounding the overcrowded enemy trenches with percussion shells.
The altitude of Walker's Ridge enabled the men to get a glorious view of the blue Ægean Sea and its historic islands, Imbros and Samothrace. Dotted here and there were white hospital ships, grey battleships, trawlers, and destroyers, the latter like wasps darting here and there, and taking advantage of any enemy movement to pepper the Turkish positions with well-directed fire. One of these destroyers, the Colne, was very popular with our troops, as she gave the enemy no rest by day or by night, for her searchlight blazed on the enemy positions after darkness had set in, and thereby disclosed any movement in the Turkish lines. Bathing was indulged in every evening by the troops which could be spared from the trenches, the beach to the north of Ari Burnu being me most popular resort, although in the daytime it was impossible to bathe there with safety, the water being raked by the fire of snipers and machine guns. At dusk, however, it was worth the risk of bathing to get rid of the dust of the trenches. At this time every evening the sea usually swarmed with bathers, but the casualties were slight, the Turkish snipers apparently taking no chances of exposing their "possies" by firing after dark.
Enemy artillery was active in the afternoon of the 22nd, and towards evening a shell burst in the "dug-out" used by the officers of the W.M.R. Headquarters as a mess. Two orderlies were busily engaged clearing the dinner table at the time, but the shell finished the job for them. It swept the table and scattered crockery in all directions, but neither of the astonished orderlies was injured. The next shell which burst in the vicinity of the mess had more disastrous effects, however, for it fatally wounded Sergeant Nevitt, who had been posted in a prominent position to watch for the flashes of enemy guns to warn his comrades in time to take cover. By some mischance one shot escaped the notice of Nevitt, and page 25 that shot proved fatal to him. Although the flashes could he plainly seen, the guns were invisible, concealed inside tunnels. They were brought forward to the tunnel mouth to fire, and were hauled back again when the naval guns commenced to search for them.
Meanwhile the Turks had renewed negotiations for a truce to enable them to bury their dead which lay in hundreds across "No Man's Land"—a menace to the health of both armies. A conference was held between representatives of the opposing forces, and ultimately it was decided to observe an armistice on 24th May, to bury the dead, between the hours of 7.30 a.m. and 5 p.m. on that date; special rules being laid down to govern the proceedings to ensure that neither side could take advantage of the truce to spy out the other's positions.
"Armistice Day" broke wet and cold, and punctually at 7.30 both forces rose up in their respective trenches—a wonderful sight—and representatives from both sides met in the centre of "No Man's Land. Cigarettes were exchanged, and there was much hand-shaking, conversations being carried on through interpreters. As a preliminary to the more gruesome work of the day, delimitation parties marked off the dividing line midway between the two forces by placing two sentries, one British and one Turkish, at intervals along the whole front. On our side parties were detailed to bury our dead and to carry the enemy dead and their rifles, minus bolts, to the dividing line, the Turks doing likewise with the British who had fallen on their side of the line. Major J. H. MacLean, N.Z.M.C., was in charge of the N.Z. Section, and from him it was gathered that an enormous number of Turks lay all around, and, from their appearance, he considered that most of them had been killed during the attack of a few days previously. Only a few New Zealanders were found unburied, these having apparently sold their lives dearly for dead Turks lay around them, and in one instance the New Zealander still held his rifle with fixed bayonet pinning his opponent down.
By 4 p.m. the ground between the N.Z.M.R. lines and the centre line bad been cleared, and an hour later hostilities were resumed. The armistice had passed off very quietly. It was well managed and all the rules had been strictly observed.
"Rest" in Shrapnel Gully
Next day the W.M.R. was relieved in the trenches by the 8th A.L.H. Regiment during heavy rain, and the former bivouacked page 26 in Shrapnel Gully No. 2, to the north. Between the hours of 11 and 12, whilst the Regiment was transferring, the battleship Triumph was torpedoed by a submarine quite close to the beach opposite Gaba Tepe Point. The ship soon began to list, and destroyers and other craft hastened to her assistance, and rescued the crew. The battleship was doomed, however, and in a very short time was lying on her side, from which position she turned bottom upwards some twelve minutes after the torpedo struck her. The sight of the sinking of this magnificent battleship will ever be a painful memory to those who witnessed it from the hills of Gallipoli.
The Regiment had been relieved from the trenches ostensibly to rest, but it was quickly disillusioned on that point. The term "rest" was a misnomer. In this case it meant more work, intense shell fire, and finally a desperate fight. Shrapnel Gully proved a veritable death trap, and a lot of work was necessary to make it safe. It was exposed to enemy gunfire, and on the morning following its occupation the Regiment was heavily shelled, with the result that two other ranks were killed and six wounded before the troops had time to deepen their "dugouts." Even then casualties occurred frequently, and it is safe to say that had the men had a choice of positions they would have preferred the front-line trenches on Walker's Ridge to the Rest Camp in Shrapnel Gully. They had not long to wait for a change. It came next day—but not to Walker's Ridge.